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Bomb Rush Cyberfunk | Games of the Year 2023

Team Reptile's latest title is another point for creative freedom and a strong political message

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Before I start this feature, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the games industry is now nearly 10,000 people shorter. Writing my feature as this celebratory thing feels weird in light of that fact.

Now, I don't engage with media for escapism mostly because escaping reality is 1) not a privilege for people like myself, and 2) real-life demands that I keep essential matters in front of my mind.

What I find interesting is seeing what creators do with entertainment based on real things. Creative work is not made without its social and political influences. Are these creative works ten toes down on their point, or will their sanitized approach leave a bad taste in my mouth?

BRC tells you precisely what it's about within the game's first five minutes...You bust someone out of custody

This brings me to my game of the year, Team Reptile's skating, graffiti writing, and street culture-inspired Bomb Rush Cyberfunk (BRC). BRC tells you precisely what it's about within the game's first five minutes.

You bust someone out of custody and spray paint art on the walls of New Amsterdam's police headquarters. All the while learning the game's basic controls - this is now my favorite tutorial chapter of a video game to date.

If the title hasn't made its stance against the police clear yet, the last thing you do in the introduction chapter is fight cops to evade arrest.

Then, Red's story with the BRC crew (along with Bel and Tyrce) unfolds across six chapters. You'll find an upfront, highly stylized, vibrant title that never eases on its themes over its eight-hours-or-less runtime.

The team aims to become the best graffiti crew, gaining the title of All City in New Amsterdam. It also serves as the narrative underlying Red's efforts to find out who he is in this weird (weird good) story.

BRC's five boroughs five boroughs you'll run - err... skate through visually just pop. For example, the first area, Versum Hill, will look familiar to those who have lived in a big American city. Apartments, a subway, and a basketball court surround it.

New Amsterdam's five boroughs are bright and distinct

The Millennium Mall area is so big and packed with businesses it probably gives the Mall of Americas a run for its money. Then there’s the Mataan borough; it's scary how much it reminds me of downtown Miami at night. Lights are everywhere, packed with people, billboards, and streets that seemingly don't end.

Team Reptile made color and character design decisions within BRC with stylistic purpose. Each of the crews within the game matches their respective surroundings. The Franks, the Frankenstein-like basketball players’ mish-mash of skin tones, match the earth tones of the Versum Hill. The afro futuristic-inspired all-women crew Eclipse's lime green outfits compliment the primary color and shades of the Brink Terminal.

Regarding controls, if you've played a skating game of any kind in the past, BRC feels very familiar. In short, you build momentum and just grind down a rail or slide down a slope. Meanwhile, players have the choice (choices are good) of rollerblading, skateboarding, and BMX trickstyles for any given character.

If you've played a skating game of any kind in the past, BRC feels very familiar

Though it should be said, depending on what console you're playing this on and what controller you're using, your hand might cramp up when you're in the middle of a long score run.

Each chapter of the game is relatively straightforward and very fun. You enter a new borough and gain the attention of the local crew. You build a reputation by painting murals on basketball courts, subway trains, the sides of billboards on skyscrapers, etc. Eventually, you have to beat that group in a trick scoring battle - which gets more challenging as the game progresses.

One of the strengths of BRC is that you aren't forced -, nor do you have to keep going - where the game’s narrative needs you. You can stop and locate everything in your hideout or any area. The rewards are new songs and outfit colors, so why not?

Also, the game's musical score is solid from a genre-offering standpoint, and how it's used is creative. The title uses an in-game DJ mix of songs to match the current chapter and crew you’re challenging. For example, when trying to take over the Eclipse crew's borough, you'll listen to house and funk music from artists like Color Plus, Knxwledge (hwbouths is my favorite song), and Swami Sound.

You can always count on the cops using more force

Eventually, in each encounter with a rival team, the police will show up because these kids are "being a threat" to the public. This brings me back to the game's anti-police message and constantly thinking about reality.

You're introduced to the game's wanted system very early. This determines the threat level you, as the player, pose to the police. Not the people, the cops themselves (you're just a graffiti writer).

If you decide to avoid raising your wanted level during play, the game allows you to do so. However, BRC's narrative is interwoven with messages about the dangers of the police's resources and its use of force.

BRC's narrative is interwoven with messages about the dangers of the police's resources and its use of force

The police have developed a "crime prevention" system meant to intercept and stop crews like yours. Side note: In reality, there's little evidence that police stop crime. So, throughout the game, encounters with law enforcement escalate.

First, they chase around with batons to subdue you, and early on, you see officers drop their batons and draw guns on you. Again, the game makes it clear the worst thing these folks are doing is graffiti. As the narrative continues, the game even throws snipers at you. (You don't have to worry if you think you'll never max out the wanted level; the game will show what happens during the story anyway.)

When your heat level is maxed out, the police will drop a walking tank to take care of you. It’s tough not to think about the real-world parallels here. In reality, the police have historically and presently deployed their military force on people who are considered targets: Black people (like me), Black communities (like my neighborhood), and so forth.

When playing BRC, I couldn't help but think about the nationwide protests of 2020 in response to ongoing police brutality. Despite the large call for defunding and cutting back law enforcement's budgets, the current presidential administration spoke against the idea. Meanwhile, some police departments saw their budgets increase(what a world huh?).

The game doesn't blare an alarm about its anti-police narrative, and to be honest, you could easily just read it as, "these are the bad guys."

But while playing, I think about the police and the impunity that comes in tow with their vast resources, especially when the game's cutscenes have the police chief justifying why they need to target a specific group of people. Or an officer realizing that reports about Red are falsified because his spray can was considered a weapon.

So yeah, playing this game has me thinking about things like Cop City in Atlanta and the ongoing movement and protests to stop it. As well as how protesters have been perceived and treated.

I may be reading more into this than Team Reptile intended. Still, the game is very upfront about what happens when an institution already targets people, and that is further intensified.

I like it when games stand behind their politics and tell their players that. It's still baffling that consumers expect entertainment to be apolitical when people never have been.

Vinyl is my favorite character because she's cool and has a skateboard

Oh, right, the characters of BRC, there's a whole cast of which are unlockable playable and they’re pretty cool. They're mostly folks of various genders, colors, and attitudes. I’m taking a moment to say my favorite character is Vinyl; she's a cool and confident skateboarder. Second favorite? Probably Rise. She dresses like a lifeguard with a big bubble jacket and boots. She sounds uninterested as she skates.

A constant theme throughout the game is that collective power is the answer to survival

BRC doesn't set out to have your characters do something unbelievable, like dismantling the institution of the police. More poignantly, it has them understanding their circumstances and that they have to navigate through it. I'm glad it doesn't end with kids abolishing a corrupt institution through skating and graffiti because that effort, at least in the US, is still being worked on by dedicated people collectively who envision a better tomorrow.

A constant theme throughout the game is that collective power is the answer to survival, like in real life; who knew?

I could write 1,000 more words about why this was my game of the year. In short, games can be earnest and talk about specific forms of oppression (the theme of the year) that target certain people like anything.

The reason why I lean mostly on independent studios is because they aren't beholden to anyone. They don't have to water down their creative vision and message. While this was inspired by Jet Grind Radio Future, BRC took a harder stance about cops.

Sure, it's a little silly because it's all fun and games (pun intended) in BRC. Still, my game of the year is about dancing, graffiti, skating, and saying f*ck the police.

Never a dull moment in New Amsterdam

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Jeffrey Rousseau avatar
Jeffrey Rousseau: Jeffrey joined in March 2021. Based in Florida, his work focused on the intersectionality of games and media. He enjoys reading, podcasts, staying informed, and learning how people are tackling issues.
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